I understand in golf they call it a mulligan. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper managed to slice both his parliamentary prospects and personal credibility deep into the political rough. His government’s so-called “economic update” of November 27 was light on economic stimulus but loaded with partisan opportunism, aiming to financially cripple all opposition parties and deliver a body blow to public-sector unions and working women. The only surprise was that he ever imagined that his tee shot might go somewhere.
However, lo and behold, last Thursday, December 4 Governor General Michaëlle Jean consulted the constitutional rule book and decreed that Harper might play his stroke again, this time on January 27, 2009. This allows him time not only to practise his swing, but also to bribe a few of his opponents with Senate and possibly cabinet posts and so reassert his parliamentary majority.
On the one hand, the Governor General had little choice but to grant Harper’s request to prorogue Parliament. After all, the House had voiced its confidence in his government by endorsing the speech from the throne just days before. And while it was inevitably poised to vote down the economic update, delayed to December 8, Harper’s visit to Rideau Hall was made while he still technically had the support of Parliament. Those who think that the GG, as the Queen’s representative, should have discounted this fact, ought to think about where such an action might lead.
On the other hand, Harper was leader of a minority government that’s existence depended on the support (or acquiescence) of at least one other party. That same status as a minority leader should have reminded us of two additional facts: (1) Canadians do not elect prime ministers or even specific partisan governments into power, rather they collectively vote for individual MPs to represent them; and (2) while this is not in fact a crisis at all but a demonstration of how parliamentary democracy is supposed to work, recent events do signal that the system itself is in severe need of updating.
Take the first point. Every so often, Canadians elect candidates as their representatives in Ottawa. Historically, candidates have aligned themselves with specific parties, the largest single party claiming the right to form a government. Lacking a clear majority, however, it’s always been incumbent on the leading party either to seek support from another or else decline the right to govern. In that case, it’s within the discretion of the Governor General to inquire whether any other party is able to construct a viable majority and so govern Canada.
At no stage, however, do we constitutionally elect either a party, as such, to govern us or, more to the point, a single individual to act as prime minister. In keeping with British tradition, the ruling party itself selects the prime minister. Indeed, nowhere in the Canadian constitution are the specific functions, responsibilities or power of the prime minister spelled out.
Here’s where the second point is relevant. Not the least of the prime minister’s jobs is to maintain the confidence of a majority of the house, as without this, his position is obviously untenable. This was the case two weeks ago, when the combined opposition parties signalled their intent to defeat Harper’s economic update. That his opponents had singularly failed to oppose him over the previous two years no doubt played its part in convincing Harper that neither would they do so this time, but to everyone’s surprise, this belated discovery of parliamentary spine threatened to bring down the new Conservative government just a fortnight after it had resumed business.
When Harper sought a prorogation last week, he was technically on solid ground, but ethically far from the fairway. Whether he can now use his six-week reprieve to advantage remains to be seen. Until then, there are two further points worth pondering. First, Harper and his supporters made much of the claim that the proposed coalition was somehow unconstitutional, contrary to the tradition of Canadian democracy. Yet this ignores the fact that the nation of Canada was born out of just such an unlikely coalition.
Back in the 1860s, no single party was able to govern the United Province of Canada (modern-day Ontario and Quebec) with majority support in both halves (i.e. Canada East and Canada West). Between 1861 and 1864, four separate administrations came and went, each unable to deliver effective majority rule. The deadlock was broken only when rivals George Brown, John A. Macdonald and George Étienne Cartier came together in the famed “Great Coalition” of 1864 with the aim of devising a new political system that could accommodate Canada’s historical and cultural divisions. Thus, three years later, was Confederation born.
Is it too much to ask that any new coalition might act similarly, and propose enacting a system of proportional representation that, once and for all, would more accurately reflect the diverse wishes of Canadians, even if this means that never again would one single party hold absolute power in Ottawa?
A number of Conservatives have declared the planned coalition to be an assault on Canadian democracy, tantamount to a coup d’etat. If they’re serious about this then, like Trudeau in 1970, they should declare a state of “apprehended insurrection,” invoke the War Measures Act and have all the usual suspects — Stéphane Dion, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe et al. — arrested and imprisoned. Perhaps only then will we really appreciate just how much damage Harper has done to the spirit of democracy in Canada.